GENESIS: Translation and Commentary

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3m 17sec

GENESIS: Translation and Commentary.

By Robert Alter. Norton. 324 pp. $25

GENESIS: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories.

By Stephen Mitchell. Harper Collins. 161 pp. $20

We credit episodes from the Book of Genesis with a vivid and irreducible simplicity, so etched are they into the minds of countless Bible readers. Yet biblical scholarship reveals the text itself to be full of knots and snares. The more attentively it is inspected, the more elusive it becomes, like a Seurat painting that dissolves into dots when approached.

The stories in Genesis are the work of at least four different writers—probably more. These authors are distinguishable by style and narrative practices, including the various names they give to God (Yahweh, Elohim). Perhaps five centuries, the interval between the tenth century b.c. and the fifth, separate the earliest portions of Genesis from the latest, and it was only in the fifth century b.c. that an editor, sometimes known as "the redactor," wove together the various strands of received narrative. Those who believe in the divinely inspired character of the Bible would have God directing the redactor’s choices. To nonbelievers, the redactor is more akin to Homer, who also gave a final masterful shape to materials that had existed independently for centuries.

These two new translations of Genesis, each with its own individual eloquence, seem directed to different audiences. Alter, professor of literature at the University of California at Berkeley, includes a running commentary on his translation. At times, those comments—philological, literary, historical—leave room on the page for no more than half a dozen lines of translation. This is a Genesis for patient readers at ease with ambiguity and irresolution.

Alter is especially good at conveying the feel of a language that routinely juxtaposes phrases or sentences without the use of subordinating conjunctions (the practice is called "parataxis"). The insistent "thereness" of Genesis (as of Homer) derives in good measure from the power of parataxis. In a world described by language that lacks the habit of grammatical subordination, every event is a defining event.

Mitchell, an accomplished translator of poetry and religious texts, offers "a new translation of the classic Bible stories" intended for readers who want a swift, uncluttered narrative. The whole of each elegantly designed page is translation; notes and comments are saved for the back of the book.

More significantly, Mitchell omits some parts of the biblical text and rearranges others, because he wants to strip from every story the later accretions that, for him, mar its original form. He unwinds the various strands of Genesis and labels them—this is original, this an addition, this a repetition, this a stylistic lapse, and so forth. (Much the same thing went on in Homeric scholarship a hundred years ago, when editors who thought they knew best sought a proto-Iliad and a proto-Odyssey buried beneath layers of later narrative embellishment.) The result is a compact and vigorous narrative but not quite the Book of Genesis, which is less tidy than Mitchell would like it to be.

Alter, conversely, wants to understand why the redactor included the various passages that Mitchell relegates to the back. The two diverge over the very shape of the biblical text. Traditionally, Genesis ends with the death of Joseph, who is buried in a coffin in Egypt (no doubt mummified). For Alter, the book traces an intended, and literarily astute, arc from the boundless chaos of its opening to the mortal confines of its close. Mitchell, by contrast, ends his Genesis several paragraphs sooner, with the death of Jacob. For him, the portion that includes Joseph’s death is among the "dull or awkward" accretions best dispatched to an appendix. There may be a sound scholarly argument for doing so, but (to judge by Alter’s version) it is not a winning argument.

—James Morris


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